Intimate communication is not about techniques.
It’s not that communication techniques are inherently bad. The better ones are like better diet tips (eat less, move more)
— Speak respectfully, listen attentively. But they’re unhelpful because people communicate primarily by emotional states, not words. Brain imaging shows that we make judgments about what a person is saying based on the emotional tone
— Body language
Facial expressions, eye contact, level of distractedness, tone of voice
— Before the part of the brain that interprets the meaning of words is active.
If you feel that something your communication partner does is “stupid,” describing the behavior in the kindest language will not hide your true feelings, although it may well make you seem disingenuous or manipulative. Think of your gut reaction when someone uses “communication techniques” on you. Do you feel respected and valued or manipulated and patronized?
If It’s Important, Know Your Goal
Be clear on your goal in speaking with your partner.
Do you want to:
- Get your partner to do something or stop doing something?
- Express yourself and be heard?
- Justify your negative feelings?
- Feel connected?
In intimate relationships, most people identify number 4 as the ultimate goal of communication. Yet their body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and eye contact almost always indicate that their goals are numbers 1-3. What seems to them as failures to communicate are really failures to manipulate, broadcast, and justify.
The problem with goal number 1 is that it requires submission, and human beings hate to submit. People will almost invariably resist what seem like attempts to control them. When they do submit, they do it resentfully. Accumulative resentment destroys relationships.
You don’t want submission in a love relationship; you want cooperation which means you must show value. (It’s a simple formula: The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists.) But you can’t just express value in words. Unless you feel it, the expression will be hollow and do more harm than good.
The trouble with goal number 2 is that strictly speaking, we can never express feelings without changing them. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies, creating a psychological equivalent to the observer effect in physics. Moreover, the brain loads into implicit memory other times you’ve experienced the feeling you’re trying to express. This gives historical meaning to your feelings that go beyond the current situation. Your communication partner will be focused on the situation (loaded with their own personal history) and will be unlikely to give the same meaning to the feelings you’re trying to express.
In intimate relationships, feeling heard is never enough. At those times when you felt heard in your relationship – when your communication skills worked – did you then feel closer, more connected, more valued? Did you feel more loving, caring, kind, and compassionate? If not, your partner probably felt on some level that your “communication” was part of an attempt to manipulate or control.
Goal number 3 falters because it’s difficult to justify negative feelings in a relationship without sounding accusatory, regardless of what communication techniques you employ. Justifying feelings is subject to confirmation bias
– you will only consider evidence that supports the emotional state while overlooking everything else. Your focus will amplify and magnify the negative, making everything and everyone else less important, which is why you almost always get reactive rather than validating the response.
A connection is basically the attunement of emotional states. Though it doesn’t have to be positive (you can be attuned to your spouse at the funeral of a loved one), attunement cannot exist in a state of emotional reactivity, when a negative feeling in one causes chaos or shut down in the other. It is extremely difficult to regulate emotional reactivity with words. Even when there is no hidden Motivation to convey how the other is failing or defective, merely attempting to translate the emotional experience into words runs a high risk of sounding artificial or, worse, manipulative or dishonest.
Positive attunement occurs through interest and caring, that is, one has to be interested in and show sympathy for the other. Interest and caring, like all emotional states, are conveyed primarily by facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, not by words or communication techniques.
Bottom line: Change your emotional state and the words will follow, but it won’t work the other way around.
How Communication Techniques Can Make Intimate Relationships Worse
When people are emotionally disconnected, the use of communication techniques makes them feel manipulated, and not just because the most popular ones are patently unnatural, more suited for a therapist’s office than a living room, kitchen, or bathroom. There is almost always a hidden agenda in the use of communication techniques – goals 1-3 above.
There no need for making the mathematic Equation . Communication between you and your partner must be clear and honest.